Monday, February 21, 2011

COLUMN: WIsconsin Pt. 1

Last year, I went on a road trip to Missouri and stopped at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. Upon my return, I wrote a column that may have questioned the fiscal prudency of such an enterprise in the Show-Me State -- because, at least based on that afternoon's clientele, folks down there know how to eat.

I thought it was a funny column and it drew a few funny responses from folks with Missouri connections, but it also got at least one former Missourian mad enough to demand an apology for my admittedly insensitive stereotyping of an entire populace. And I did apologize for poking fun -- it wasn't my intention to mock anyone, let alone a whole state, especially given the fact that I'm a card-carrying member of the chub club myself.

Ergo, you'd think that my days of careless sweeping stereotypes were behind me. You would think. Instead, I'm about to make another one of those controversially unfair and broad generalizations, so get your letter-to-the-editor typing fingers all warmed up, coz here it comes:


There. I said it. It's committed to paper and too late to take back now. I'm sure that right now, someone somewhere is reading this going, "Hey, I'm from Wisconsin and I'm proud to be a total rude jerk-off. How dare he accuse me of being nice? Ooh, he makes me MAD..." Don't worry, I've already cleared space on my desk for your letters.

But this time, there's ample reason for my stereotyping, and it all started last week while I was still in good ol' Rock Island. I was on my way to work, driving absent-mindedly down 7th Avenue, when I noticed one of the rims on the weathered old truck in front of me. Specifically, I noticed the rim because it was near horizontal, hanging onto the tire for dear life.

"Oh jeez," I thought to myself. "One more bump and that thing's gonna go..." BUMP.

Just as I'd predicted, the truck hit a pothole and the rim went flying off, nearly defootitating some innocent Augie student headed to class. The driver of the pickup just went rolling on, not even noticing what had happened. At the next stoplight, I found myself beside the truck, so I motioned to the driver and rolled down my window.

"Hi!" I said. "Hey, just in case you didn't see, you lost one of your rims back there by the last intersection. It's probably still laying back there on the sidewalk."

I am super awesome, I thought to myself as I imagined them handing me my Good Samaritan of the Year medal in a ceremony of much pomp and circumstance. I don't know anything whatsoever about cars, but I know that some people pay absurd amounts of money for custom rims. Those dumb little circles can be super valuable, and here I was taking the time to alert the driver. I didn't expect much. Maybe a thank-you, maybe a smile, maybe an I-am-the-mayor-of-this-town-and-for-your-selfless-act-of-kindness-I-bestow-upon-thee-a-key-to-the-city. Instead, here's what I got in response. Ready?

"@#$% YOU!"

It took me by such surprise that I literally went, "Wait, what?"

"YOU HEARD ME! @#$% YOU, @#$$^%!!"

The first unprintable was an obscenity. The second, a gay slur. Awwwwesome.

I rolled up my window and kept driving. At every stoplight we hit, I stared straight ahead while I could see the redneck yokel out of the corner of my eye still yelling at me. At one point, he made as if he was going to leap out of his truck and assault my car. At another point, he leaned out and spit all over my passenger window.

The moral of the story? People suck. For the rest of the day, I couldn't shake the image of this random jerkwad irrationally screaming at me so venomously that the veins in his forehead looked like they were about to leap out his skin in a desperate and suicidal bid to escape life attached to such a schmuck. And, without bringing this column down to woe-is-us levels, it got me thinking about society.

I mean, what on Earth happened to decency these days? Common courtesy, social niceties, and just plain being human to strangers and your neighbors alike. It seems like the more and more I go through life, the less and less friendly people become. At some point, you have to start drawing conclusions. Either (a) I am so dislikable of a human being that I instantly bring out the worst in people like moths to a light, or (b) we as a people are becoming measurably schmuckier.

I'm not saying we're all at the level of irrational road rage like my newfound foul-mouthed friend, and I know there's still a lot of truly decent folk milling about out there. But think about this. How many times have you made a head nod or issued a casual "w'sup" to a stranger to have them totally ignore you? Or check out of a store and have the clerk act like it's truly paining them to wait on you? How many times have you had a stranger let a door swing in your face? Or drive past you like you're invisible when you're trying to merge or turn left through oncoming traffic? Some days, I'm lucky to get an "excuse me" if somebody bumps into me. More and more, we're losing touch with our decency.

But here's the thing. Last weekend, I surprised my girlfriend with an early Valentine daytrip to Milwaukee to see one of her favorite musicians. And I kid you not, the moment we crossed that border into Wisconsin, the weirdest thing happened: People started behaving better.

I first noticed it when driving. I hate big city traffic, and merging onto a crowded interstate gives me acid reflux. I was ready for the usual Chicago stomp-on-the-gas-or-die technique, but as I merged onto I-94 in downtown Milwaukee, I saw three different cars suddenly slow down and change lanes to make room for me. Two of them gave friendly waves, like, "Hi! Welcome to the interstate!"

I stopped at a gas station. "Hi! Welcome to Speedway! Do you have one of our discount cards? It could save you a few cents off that Coke! No need paying full price if you don't have to!"

At the place we stopped for dinner, the wait staff and bartenders grinned and danced around to the radio as if serving people was the highlight of their day. At the concert, we laughed and talked with strangers. Even the rough-and-tumble bouncers at the concert were helpful and courteous. That's when it hit me.

Maybe society isn't altogether hopeless -- maybe it's (gulp) just us. Who knows, maybe there's jerks aplenty all over Wisconsin and we were just lucky enough to miss them. Maybe the Wisconsin jerks are having a secret summit with all the skinny Missourians. Either way, it merits more investigation.

The one thing that DID grate on our nerves in Wisconsin, though, was our uninvited British guest. More on her next week.

No comments: